Album Review – The Bottle Rockets: South Broadway Athletic Club


More than two decades on from the Bottle Rockets’ debut album, Brian Henneman is still the best and most articulate working stiff in rock & roll, a songwriter who can speak for the regular guy who punches a time clock with greater honesty and understanding than practically anyone who professes to be The Voice Of The People. (Bruce Springsteen certainly means well, but when was the last time he actually had to think about coming up with the rent money?) The Bottle Rockets’ tenth studio album, 2015’s South Broadway Athletic Club, not only attests that Henneman’s lyrical voice rings as true as ever, it’s an excellent example of Grown Up Rock & Roll, unforced but passionate country-influenced rock that both musically and lyrically speaks of a richly lived life and the challenges of making one’s way in a world filled with both victories and defeats.

The Bottle Rockets understand a world where Monday’s shadow always seems to be lurking around the corner, sloth is sometimes not born of laziness but the reward at the end of a punishing week, love is hard work whether it goes good or bad, and sometimes surviving to another day is the most you can ask out of life. The rough edges of Henneman’s voice are made to order for this batch of songs, and he and his bandmates — John Horton on guitars, Keith Voegele on bass, and Mark Ortmann on drums — rock with a little less muscle than they did in the ’90s, but with the same no-nonsense melodic punch and six-string swagger that marked their classic era. Even the album’s one lyrical misstep — “Building Chryslers,” a number about a lackadaisical auto worker that seems like an artifact from another era when the auto industry was still strong enough to support overpaid slackers, hardly the case in the 21st century — is filled with enough passion to connect, and the long ride out contains some of the album’s most satisfying guitar fireworks.

South Broadway Athletic Club seems like a typical Bottle Rockets album on the surface, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find a set of songs as strong and emotionally powerful as anything this band has delivered since 24 Hours a Day, and if you need to be reminded that this is one of America’s best and most underappreciated rock bands, spin this once and see if you don’t feel like spinning it again right away.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 27, 2015 in Spotlight on


Album Review – White Fang: Chunks


“Let White Fang speak for the monkey people of Earth!” proclaims the lunatic spoken word intro to the band’s (seemingly) millionth LP, Chunks.

Now based in L.A., where their love affair with like-minded D.I.Y. chums Burger Records continues to blossom, the Portland natives remain a polarizing bunch. Occasionally winning critical adoration but just as often fielding accusations of total slacker underachievement, White Fang seem to just shrug it all off and just do what they’ve been doing since high school: prolifically releasing homemade albums of lo-fi thrash-punk that play like one big in-joke. While the making of Chunks — arguably their first decent-sounding album — offers a new twist in their narrative, they are still in no danger of taking themselves too seriously, and that’s a good thing. Born out of a suggestion by former Detroiter Bobby Harlow to “get your shit totally together and make a really big-sounding record that blows minds,” White Fang got up off the couch long enough to do just that.

Produced by Harlow at Burger’s Studio B, Chunks acts as a sort of “Introduction to White Fang.” On this mix of new songs and some re-recorded versions of earlier highlights, Harlow manages to harness the daft, freewheeling slackery that is the band’s signature while tightening things up enough to become accessible to fans outside of the cassette rock underground. The lead single is called “Bong Rip,” and with its demented stoner samples and psych bong-hit/gong breakdown, it’s exactly as fun as you imagine it to be. Of the previously recorded material, each feels like an improvement on its original, with “Full Time Freaks” and “4-Track Mind” standing out above the rest. On the low-key “Wander” they tone down their antics to deliver a very solid (and fairly serious) groove rocker, while on “I Love School” they come across like Ween’s delinquent nephews hell-bent on perplexing critics of the new generation by flashing quality craftsmanship, then pissing on it with sophomoric wit.

White Fang have hijacked the logos of both Taco Bell and Van Halen (the latter graces Chunks‘ cover), and that’s not too far away from what they sound like. If you were on the fence about them before, this could be the album to convince you of their charms.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 25, 2015 in Spotlight on




Borrowing heavily from David Bowie and the Smiths, Suede forge a distinctively seductive sound on their eponymous album.

Guitarist Bernard Butler has a talent for crafting effortlessly catchy, crunching glam hooks like the controlled rush of “Metal Mickey” and the slow, sexy grind of “The Drowners,” but he also can construct grand, darkly romantic soundscapes like the sighing “Sleeping Pills” and the tortured “Pantomime Horse.” What brings these elegant sounds to life is Brett Anderson, who invests them with bed-sit angst and seamy sex. Anderson’s voice is calculatedly affected and theatrical, but it fits the grand emotion of his self-consciously poetic lyrics. Suede are working-class lads striving for glamour, and they achieve it by piecing together remnants of the past with pieces of the present, never forgetting the value of a strong hook in the process. And while the sound of Suede frequently recalls the peak of glam rock, its punk-influenced passion and self-conscious appropriation of the past make it thoroughly postmodern.

Coincidentally, its embrace of trashy pop helped usher in an era of Britpop, but few bands captured the theatrical melancholy that gave Suede such resonance.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 24, 2015 in Archive Album Focus


Album Review – Protomartyr: The Agent Intellect


“The Agent Intellect” is a concept in medieval philosophy related to the division between form and matter in the human soul, and while such notions don’t play much of a part in the lyrics on Protomartyr’s third album, 2015’s The Agent Intellect, it’s not hard to imagine lead vocalist and lyricist Joe Casey as a philosophy professor at some Midwestern college taking the stage at a tiny bar off-campus and delivering a series of rants and/or free associations as a student band whips up a thick fog of guitars and drums that pours out behind him.

Protomartyr established their sonic formula on 2012’s debut album, No Passion All Technique, and while the band has steadily grown and evolved since then, the essential framework isn’t radically different on The Agent Intellect, only smarter and stronger, and guitarist Greg Ahee’s waves of fuzzy thunder and rusty jangle are the meat on these bones. Casey’s speechifying and Ahee’s soundscapes are the yin and yang of this music, and even when the lyrics get buried in the mix, the guitar meshes well enough with the vocals that the mood remains constant even as the literal meaning gets shaken. Drummer Alex Leonard and bassist Scott Davidson are the ideal rhythm section for this music, strong and elemental but clever enough to find new angles and rhythmic detours that allow them to help the songs shake and move rather than just keeping a beat.

Protomartyr’s music is smart without wearing its intellect on its sleeve, and physically strong enough to support the ideas lurking behind Casey’s lyrics, and The Agent Intellect is an album that challenges both the mind and the body; if you’re looking for further confirmation that Protomartyr are one of the smartest and toughest bands of their day, this album is what you need.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 23, 2015 in Spotlight on


Album Review – Beach House: Thank Your Lucky Stars


It’s a small, but significant, detail that live drums are the first thing listeners hear on Thank Your Lucky Stars. Though “Majorette” soon unfolds into the swirling, twinkling, snow-globe beauty for which Beach House are well-known — some might say too well-known — the moment captures the tiny yet notable ways Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally tinker with their sound on their second release of 2015.

Arriving just two months after Depression Cherry, Thank Your Lucky Stars was recorded at the same time as that album; while it’s tempting to say the duo should’ve combined the best songs from each into one work — or released them as a double album — their vibes are distinct. Stars’ songs were written after Depression Cherry, and express the simplicity Beach House craved after the massive-sounding Bloom in a very different way. Where its predecessor floated by in a beautiful blur that made the most of Scally and Legrand’s impressionistic powers, Thank Your Lucky Stars is a collection of shorter, distinct songs rather than a mood piece. Even the old saying the duo chose for the album title hints that this is a less abstract affair than Depression Cherry. There’s a lot of heart in these songs, particularly in Legrand’s vocals: on the aptly named “Rough Song,” she’s raw and unfettered, a sharp contrast to Depression Cherry’s ethereal purity. The focus on her voice also spotlights the album’s lyrics in a way unique for Beach House. On “She’s So Lovely,” Legrand traces a relationship’s decay with small shifts, the hook “All I have to do/Is everything for you” souring into “All I have to do/Is stay away from you.”

Interestingly, Thank Your Lucky Stars‘ more down-to-earth approach allows the duo to cover more musical ground. “All Your Yeahs” is one of Beach House’s most driven songs, charting a more purposeful course from brooding to joyous than they’ve taken in the past, while “One Thing”‘s Velvet Underground-like thump is surprisingly heavy. Elsewhere, Scally and Legrand get (relatively) more eclectic: “Common Girl” sounds like Nico fronting Broadcast, while “The Traveller” borrows some of Goldfrapp’s gliding elegance. Nevertheless, the album’s most beautiful moments are unmistakably Beach House. “Elegy to the Void” — which might be the most Beach House-esque song title ever — is elevated by a stratospheric guitar solo. Later, the gorgeous finale “Somewhere Tonight” proves Legrand and Scally are among the few 21st century musicians capable of updating ’50s slow dance swoon without a hint of schmaltz or irony.

In its own way, Thank Your Lucky Stars is just as rewarding as Depression Cherry, and arguably more immediate. Instead of releasing another mammoth effort like Bloom, they’ve delivered two smaller-scale triumphs that can be appreciated separately or together.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 22, 2015 in Spotlight on


Album Review – Galactic: Into the Deep


The first collection of new studio music from the relentlessly inventive New Orleans funk-jam unit since 2012’s Carnivale Electricos, Into the Deep arrives after a well-received trio of Mardi Gras-centric outings.

As per usual, Galactic is joined by an all-star roster of guests, including Macy Gray, Mavis Staples, JJ Grey, Ryan Montbleau, David Shaw of the Revivalists, Maggie Koerner, Brushy One String, and Charm Taylor, and while they may have ostensibly left Fat Tuesday behind, they certainly haven’t abandoned their penchant for second-line swagger, as evidenced by the parade route-ready, brass-and-drum-led opener “Sugar Doosie,” which wastes little time getting the party started. More song-oriented than ever, Into the Deep does a nice job showcasing both the band and the guest vocalists.

Florida-based Southern rock and soul specialist JJ Grey’s bayou bluster is lent extra muscle by the thrum of deep, ’70s funk that’s being churned out behind him, Mavis Staples, who at the age of 76 can still make gospel sound sexy, lends her unmistakable pipes to the immaculately laid-back “Does It Really Make a Difference,” and the slow-burn title track finds the husky-throated Macy Gray channeling Tina Turner and serving up an old-school blast of vintage soul that’s as full-blooded and unabashedly nostalgic as it is 21st century radio-friendly.

Throughout it all, co-founders, producers, and arrangers Ben Ellman and Robert Mercurio sonically map out a NOLA that’s as vibrant and forward thinking as it is steeped in the region’s rich culture, cementing the band’s reputation (20 years in) as both innovators and stalwart defenders of tradition.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 21, 2015 in Spotlight on


Album Review – Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll


Peter Guralnick, author of a definitive two-part biography on Elvis Presley, published the equally definitive The Man Who Invented Rock & Roll in 2015. At 784 pages, the book is appropriately weighty. This is a man who not only discovered Elvis Presley, but Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, he deserves an epic but, as he was the quintessential recordman of the 20th century, he also deserves a soundtrack, so Guralnick gave him one, compiling a double-disc set to accompany the book.

The recordings Phillips made at his Sun Studios are well-documented, so what gives The Man Who Invented Rock & Roll an edge is the curator’s touch. Guralnick doesn’t neglect Sun standards — “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” “Moanin’ at Midnight,” “Rocket 88,” “Mystery Train,” “Sittin’ and Thinkin’,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hey Porter,” and “Rock & Roll Ruby” are all here, as they should be — but he also doesn’t rely on obscurities, either, choosing to balance cult favorites, left-field selections, and cuts from John Prine’s 1979 album Pink Cadillac along with the big hits. He also bends unspoken rules of compilations, choosing to discard strict chronological flow and piling Little Walter tunes upon each other, a move that winds up emphasizing the big picture, how Phillips tapped into the essence of American music in all its wild, untamed weirdness.

Decades after its recording, this mid-century music is funny, ribald, passionate, and vital, whether it’s electrified blues boogie, backwoods rockabilly, sophisticated country, or Prine’s knowing look back at it all, and this compilation, more than most Sun collections, drives right to the heart of the matter.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 20, 2015 in Spotlight on


Album Review – Knife Pleats: Hat Bark Beach


Rose Melberg is one of those musicians where everything she does is reliably great. All the bands she’s been in (like Tiger Trap, the Softies, Brave Irene), all the songs she’s sung, all the records she’s made (especially her run of solo records in the 2000s) are worth hearing; most are worth carrying around with you at all times in case a musical embrace is required. Without her warm and engaging presence, indie pop would be just a little less fun and many of the genre’s highlights would be missing. Knife Pleats, the band she formed with members of Love Cuts, comes from the noisy, uptempo side of her output.

Their first album, Hat Bark Beach, sounds like a nimble version of Tiger Trap or a tougher version of Go Sailor, but also sounds like Melberg at her best. Filled with hummable songs, sugar-sweet choruses, layered vocal harmonies, bright guitar melodies, and energy-packed drums, it’s exactly what one of her bands should be and the album rates with her best. The emotional honesty of songs like “One Step Too Far” and “Distant Ships” is quietly devastating; the punch-in-the-gut sentiments of “Last Few Days” and “Terrible” are matched by the whip-smart guitars and heavy drumming. Melberg is her usual brilliant self, bringing infinite melancholy to the sad songs and a sweet calmness to the less sad songs. The bandmembers sound great throughout as they prove to be great collaborators, with excellent vocal backing from Kaity McWhinney and Tracey Vath.

It all comes together beautifully in an unbroken wave of indie pop goodness, and while it may be a bit soon to elevate Knife Pleats to the level of the Softies or Tiger Trap, Hat Bark Beach takes them a giant step in that direction.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 18, 2015 in Spotlight on


ARCHIVED ALBUM: The Rolling Stones: Some Girls

During the mid-’70s, the Rolling Stones remained massively popular, but their records suffered from Jagger’s fascination with celebrity and Keith’s worsening drug habit. By 1978, both punk and disco had swept the group off the front pages, and Some Girls was their fiery response to the younger generation.

Opening with the disco-blues thump of “Miss You,” Some Girls is a tough, focused, and exciting record, full of more hooks and energy than any Stones record since Exile on Main St. Even though the Stones make disco their own, they never quite take punk on their own ground. Instead, their rockers sound harder and nastier than they have in years. Using “Star Star” as a template, the Stones run through the seedy homosexual imagery of “When the Whip Comes Down,” the bizarre, borderline-misogynistic vitriol of the title track, Keith’s ultimate outlaw anthem, “Before They Make Me Run,” and the decadent closer, “Shattered.” In between, they deconstruct the Temptations’ “(Just My) Imagination,” unleash the devastatingly snide country parody “Far Away Eyes,” and contribute “Beast of Burden,” one of their very best ballads.

Some Girls may not have the back-street aggression of their ’60s records, or the majestic, drugged-out murk of their early-’70s work, but its brand of glitzy, decadent hard rock still makes it a definitive Stones album.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 17, 2015 in Archive Album Focus


Comic Review – Southern Bastards #12

southernbastards_12-1This issue begins by flashing back to the beating of Tad and introduces one of Boss’s flunkies, Materhead. Unlike Esaw, Materhead can’t quite stomach (literally) the violence he’s called upon to perform, and he starts dreaming of a dog because of the guilt. That might sound banal, except that that same dog bit Coach Boss in an earlier game against Wetumpka, costing the Rebs the football game. Materhead goes to visit Tad, who unbelievably wakes up against all predictions, and is sent home.

At this point, things get weird: Tad finds himself inside one of his TV cartoons, where a malevolent, man-sized chicken (an evil take on Foghorn Leghorn?) torments him over Tubb’s death, leading Tad to swear revenge. Back at home, the boy makes it outside to see a dog in the yard killing a rooster.

You could read this entire issue as a series of omens warning the reckoning that is coming to destroy Euless Boss. Dogs frighten the hell out of Materhead, a dog ruined the last football game against Wetumpka, and now this boy can’t help but see violent dogs everywhere. The chicken is the quirky bit in all of this. Is the chicken Tad’s sense of guilt, fear, and helplessness over Tubb’s death? Is it temptation leading him to try for revenge when he should cut his losses and just quit?

Sounds like Tad’s going to try and be the dog that bit Boss. Only problem is the last dog that did that was put down.

Review by Paul Elliott

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 15, 2015 in Comic Recommendation


Album Review – All Them Witches: Dying Surfer Meets His Maker


“Inspired” and “heavy” are words that come to mind when taking in Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, the third long-player from Nashville’s All Them Witches.

In recent years, All Them Witches’ live rep has become nearly mythical as they combine mercurial yet sensitive singer/songwriter lyricism, tripped-out post-psych hard blues, and stoner rock metallic thud. The album was recorded in an isolated cabin on a Pigeon Forge, Tennessee hilltop overlooking Dollywood far below. It was cut mostly live from the floor by Mikey Allred, with overdubs added later. One song opens onto another as it unfolds into a labyrinthine, head-expanding ride. On “Call Me Star,” gently fingerpicked acoustic guitars are adorned by a weeping slide; snares and tom-toms frame bassist Charles Michael Parks, Jr.’s lonesome, from-the-void vocal, which recalls prime Robert Plant. The restraint gives way to a spacy rockist vibe, but never loses its rootsy feel. A basic one-chord electric guitar vamp introduces the massive “El Centro.” It quickly gives way to a massive blown-out bassline from Parks. Ben McLeod’s wiry fuzz guitars and Robby Staebler’s rolling drums add punch and urgency. (Few bands know how to make use of a really good drummer; All Them Witches have that down cold.) Squalling guitars rife with feedback and tense rhythms à la Loop mesh with the heavy, hard, and head-nodding plod of Sleep. Eight minutes feels like half an hour as time and space slip the ropes.

By contrast, the cut-time “Dirt Preachers” is a brief wonky 12-bar punk blues with metal guitar vamps. The great Mickey Raphael guests on “This Is Where It Falls Apart,” a snail-paced psychedelic blues delivered with tense restraint and colored with dubwise effects. On “Open Passageways,” Staebler’s declamatory drumming (which recalls the earthiness of Otha Turner’s Rising Star Fife & Drum Band with the dark authority of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”) gradually extends to Allan Van Cleave’s melodic old-world violin break before the entire band erects a doomy climatic architecture. “Talisman” commences as Americana fare, but at over six minutes dissolves into a trance inducer of roiling drums and snaky, overdriven guitars and bass. Everything is on stun. Van Cleave’s Fender Rhodes is the only thing binding it to the earth. At first, “Blood & Sand/Milk & Endless Waters” sounds like a cyclic return to “This Is Where It Falls Apart,” but its fuzzed-out rolling thunder brings in the heaviness of “El Centro” too. The jam comes into its own when layers of fiddle and silvery blues guitar ripple forth before Staebler’s fat, grooving drums help rock it to a close.

Dying Surfer Meets His Maker showcases All Them Witches in complete control of their songwriting, arranging, producing, and performing. Slow-burning albums that provide this much weight, creativity, surprise, and enduring pleasure are rare.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 14, 2015 in Spotlight on


Album Review – Jesse Malin: Outsiders


The normally prolific Jesse Malin spent five years preoccupied with solo touring and reuniting his punk band D Generation between 2010’s Love It to Life and 2015’s New York Before the War, and it seems telling that his next album, Outsiders, arrived in October 2015, a mere seven months after New York Before the War.

Outsiders hardly sounds hurried or tossed off, and the production by Don DiLego effectively fuses rock & roll attitude with big-city polish, but in spite of all this the album sounds a good bit more spontaneous than New York Before the War, and there’s a natural grit and rumble to this music that gives it a stronger rock & roll feel that many of Malin’s solo efforts. His thoughtful side is very much in evidence on these tunes, but the accumulated details of “Here’s the Situation” and “Whitestone City Limits” allow him to sound poetic while the guitars and drums kick hard, and “The Hustlers” and “Society Sally” use their horn-augmented arrangements to create an evocative sound that recalls the ’70s in a way that works. Many of Malin’s solo efforts have found him wearing his heart on his sleeve, but the most outwardly sentimental moments here come in his acoustic cover of the Clash’s “Stay Free,” and he manages to bring something fresh to the song that’s sweet but stings along the edges. Closing number “You Know It’s Dark When Atheists Start to Pray” is a big, musical shaggy dog story that weaves its way down any number of alleys and side streets for six minutes without losing its charm (and generally holding on to the point).

2015 has been a good year for Jesse Malin, and any man who can release two albums as strong and distinctive as New York Before the War and Outsiders in considerably less than 12 months has earned the right to wait a good year-and-a-half before delivering his next set.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 13, 2015 in Spotlight on


Album Review – Joanna Newsom: Divers


If music is a time machine, able to transport listeners to different places and eras as well as deep into memories, then Joanna Newsom steers Divers as deftly as Jules Verne.

She flits to and from 18th century chamber music, 19th century American folk music, ’70s singer/songwriter pop, and other sounds and eras with the lightness of a bird, one of the main motifs of her fourth full-length. Her on-the-wing approach is a perfect fit for Divers‘ themes: Newsom explores “the question of what’s available to us as part of the human experience that isn’t subject to the sovereignty of time,” as she described it in a Rolling Stone interview. It’s a huge subject, and even though she worked with several different arrangers — including Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth and Nico Muhly — she crystallizes Have One on Me’s triple-album ambition into 11 urgent songs that still allow her plenty of variety. “Leaving the City,” with its linear beat and electric guitar, is the closest she’s come to an actual rock song; “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive” could pass for medieval music, despite its mention of “capillaries glowing with cars.”

While Divers is musically dense, it may be even more packed with ideas and vivid imagery; its lyrics sheet reads like a libretto (and is a necessary reference while listening). The bird calls that bookend the album — and the way its final word (“trans-“) flows into its first (“sending”) — hint at the album’s looping, eternal yet fleeting nature, while “Anecdotes” introduces how each track feels like a microcosm (or parallel universe) dealing with war, love, and loss in slightly different ways. “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” in which time-traveling soldiers end up fighting their own ghosts, highlights Divers‘ sci-fi undercurrent, which is all the more intriguing paired with its largely acoustic sounds. Newsom combines these contrasts between theatricality and intimacy, and city and country, splendidly on “Sapokanikan,” named for the Native American settlement located where Greenwich Village stands. As she layers the ghosts and memories of old Dutch masters, potter’s fields, Tammany Hall, and allusions to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, the music nods to ragtime and other vintage American styles; it could be overwhelming if she didn’t return to the simple, poignant refrain: “Do you love me? Will you remember?” Indeed, despite its literacy and embellishments, Newsom’s music is never just an academic exercise. The album’s emotional power grows as it unfolds: “Divers” itself reaches deep, bringing the album’s longing to the surface. “A Pin-Light Bent” finds Newsom accepting that time is indeed finite with a quiet, riveting intensity, building to the majestic finale “Time, As a Symptom,” where the personal, historical, and cosmic experiences of time she’s pondered seem to unite as she realizes, “Time is just a symptom of love.”

Newsom can make her audience work almost as hard as she does, but the rewards are worth it: Dazzling, profound, and affecting, Divers‘ explorations of time only grow richer the more time listeners spend with them.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 11, 2015 in Spotlight on


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,871 other followers